Serving the community as one

It was a quiet morning in the sleepy neighbourhood of Tampines St 82 when a group of 24 volunteers arrived in earnest, armed with hats, gardening gloves, and a passion to serve. Amid the neatly lined plants of the Kampung Senang Inclusive Garden – which were soaking up a much welcomed spot of sunshine – the volunteers laboured conscientiously, carefully potting up plants which will be sold to raise funds.

The gardeners for the day were among hundreds of others from the NUS community who performed community service all across the island on 4 September, the NUS Day of Service. The annual event, which began in 2016, sees NUS alumni, staff and students come together on the first Saturday in September in service of various causes, from delivering meals to residents-in-need to taking care of stray animals.

While the scale of this year’s activities was checked by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NUS community managed to serve a range of causes, and even see new collaborations – such as with Kampung Senang. The charity, which runs day care centres for senior citizens and pre-school children, seeks to promote health and wellness by serving up organic, plant-based meals that come from its very own garden.

“There are many old people who are alone, and we need a centre like Kampung Senang to bring them out. It is a good place to take care of the seniors, as well as to encourage them to eat healthily,” said Ms Kwek Chay Tiang, an alumna from the Class of 1971 who was also in charge of planning the day’s programme.

Besides potting plants, the volunteers – comprising NUS Senior Alumni as well as NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye, among others – also assembled care packs for beneficiaries of the Singapore Red Cross and Singapore Cancer Society. The laborious process required them to carry boxes of supplies, which included rice and milk, to the packing area, and put together 240 packs while keeping time.

These efforts, said Ms Joyce Lye, the founder of Kampung Senang, were “embedded with care.”

“The care packs not only bring essential items to families, but also give hope and joy to the beneficiaries that they are not forgotten in a period when most people struggle one way or another,” she said, sharing that the need for Kampung Senang’s services has increased with the COVID-19 pandemic, while the pool of volunteers has shrunk.

The tie-up with Day of Service was hence an encouragement to Ms Lye, herself an NUS alumna who remembers her days of volunteering in university and how initiatives like Meatless Thursdays on campus had inspired her back then.

“I feel so honoured that the senior alumni came. I have never been so happy for quite a while after COVID. Their presence really cheered me up, and we were even talking about future collaborations,” she said.

Not too far away, another group of volunteers found their hands full with vegetables too – more precisely, with vegetables that had to be peeled, chopped and diced to make meals for the needy. The Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen rumbled to an early start at 5am, with alumni from the NUS Students' Union making up the first group of volunteers, followed by staff from the Office of Alumni Relations, and alumni from the NUS Business School Alumni Association.

Besides food preparation, the volunteers were also involved in packing lunch boxes, cleaning and washing the equipment, and loading the packed food for delivery. The kitchen was a hive of activity as group after group worked towards the goal of preparing 9,500 meals to be delivered to over 40 locations across Singapore.

“My greatest takeaway was learning about the way Willing Hearts works in order to help the needy,” reflected Chong Ke En, a second-year NUS Business School student.

“I see how altruistic the volunteers are, as they start with the cooking session at 5am every day and work through the day to prepare meals. It is indeed heart-warming, and I would like to volunteer more often to help people in need.”

Other projects to help the less fortunate include an initiative by NUS Alumni Sing-Along to distribute welfare packs to Ling Kwang Home, and a partnership between NUS Overseas Colleges and The Giving Collective to distribute food to needy families.

To do their part for the environment, teams from the NUS College of Alice and Peter Tan and the NUS Business School Alumni Office (also known as NUS BIZAlum) fanned out across East Coast Park in a beach clean-up session. Continuing their efforts, a team from Prince George’s Park House will be doing a beach clean-up this weekend.

"The impact of trash left on beaches and dumped in the sea on sea life is widely known and I wanted to do my little part to try and make a difference. Meeting others from NUS who felt similarly was also lovely,” said Ms Anisha Kundu, from the NUS Master of Business Administration (MBA) Class of 2017.

“Before we set off I saw a tiny crab (I have never seen a crab on East Coast Park), and when we were wrapping up we saw a family of otters in the sea (I've only ever seen them in the canals). I take it as nature's way of saying thank you!"

Mr Luigi La Tona, who obtained the NUS Executive MBA (EMBA) in 2021, had helped to organise the beach clean-up.

“Upon learning about the Day of Service opportunity, I immediately shared this with other NUS EMBA alumni and engaged the NUS BIZAlum executive team to further coordinate a suitable event,” he said.

“The beach clean-up ticked all boxes of not only allowing alumni to directly effect change through a physical activity, but allowing them to bring their children, thereby sharing further awareness of the importance of the 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.”

Also among this year’s beneficiaries was a group of special four-legged friends: the dogs and cats of the Animal Lovers League, a no-kill shelter that takes in animals that have been abandoned or abused. Volunteers from the Prince George’s Park Residences got busy cleaning the catteries and dog kennels indoors, before taking the dogs for a walk around the sprawling grounds of Sungei Tengah.

For Delwyn Lee, a first-year data science and analytics student from the NUS Faculty of Science, his decision to serve was fuelled by a desire to help those that otherwise can’t help themselves.

“This service means a lot to me,” he said.

“Many animals go without a proper family for years and trying to make their lives slightly more comfortable is one thing I could do. As a society I would say that we could definitely do more to combat this issue,” said Delwyn, who walked three dogs – King, Sam and Man Man (which means “slow” in Chinese).

“Man Man is a misnomer, because she was very fast!” he recalled.

Alacrity aside, working with the animals presented the volunteers a chance to reflect on the meaning of service and what it entails.

As fellow volunteer Shao Luoyi shared, “I realised that being a volunteer can be exhausting, and one needs to be dedicated and patient. We volunteers helped to pick up the trash, wash the kennels, and walk some of the dogs, and I was already worn out after the session, which was just half of a normal session.”

Luoyi, a first-year student from the NUS Faculty of Engineering, added, “Knowing the difficulties of taking care of the animals, I sincerely respect those who commit to this for a long time and will try my best to contribute consistently.”